The Slatest

Did the Russians Have a Secret Performance-Enhancing Weapon in Sochi?

Endurance athletes have long coveted EPO looking for a way to boost their red-blood count

File photo by Odd Anderson/AFP/Getty Images

Russian officials aren’t saying that their athletes used a controversial—although not technically illegal—performance-enhancing substance at this year’s Olympics. But they’re also not saying that they didn’t. Or, in the words of Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, there would be “nothing wrong” if they did. “We use what is not illegal, is not destructive and does not have side effects,” he said Wednesday in the first public comments offered by a Russian official on the matter since reports began to surface about the use of the gas xenon by Olympic athletes.

For those of us whose AP Chemistry and Biology days are a distant memory, xenon is a colorless, odorless noble gas that makes up only about 0.000009 percent of the atmosphere. But while it may be relatively scarce in nature, if consolidated in larger quantities it has the potential to produce a bounty of benefits for the human body. Most notably for athletes: It spurs the production of Erythropoietin, aka EPO, the red-blood-cell-boosting hormone that improves physical performance and that has long been coveted by world-class endurance athletes looking for an extra edge in competition. (Cycling and Oprah fans will recall that EPO was one of Lance Armstrong’s PEDs of choice.)

But while injecting oneself directly with EPO—as Armstrong and his fellow disgraced cyclists did—is a clear-cut violation of pretty much any sport’s anti-doping rules, athletes are technically allowed to stimulate the natural production of the hormone through other means, creating a Siberian-sized gray area for those competitors looking for an edge. For example, athletes are allowed to split their time between low and high altitudes to maximize their red-cell production. They’re also allowed to sleep in a low-oxygen tent to create artificial conditions to do the same. And, under the letter of sports’ anti-doping laws, they’re also allowed to inhale as much xenon as they want—or at least regulators have not yet specifically barred them from doing so.

So did the Russians cheat? In a word: no. But it’s also pretty easy to see why the Russians are none too eager to talk about xenon, and why Uiba opted to hide behind the somewhat clumsy “not illegal” phrase. Traditionally speaking, the bigger the advantage, the more likely a performance-enhancing measure is to draw the attention of anti-doping officials. (The World Anti-Doping Agency, for example, previously considered banning oxygen tents in the past out of concerns about competitive fairness.) And when we’re talking about xenon inhalation, studies suggest that we’re dealing with quite the massive advantage indeed, as the Economist explained earlier this month:

[A]nimal studies elsewhere have demonstrated xenon’s dramatic effects on both [EPO and Hif-1, a protein that turns on EPO production in the body]. One such, carried out in 2009 by Mervyn Maze at Imperial College, London, found that exposing mice to a mixture of 70% xenon and 30% oxygen for two hours more than doubled the animals’ EPO levels a day later. Another, by Xiaoqiang Ding of Fudan University in Shanghai, found that Hif-1 alpha levels in mice stayed high for up to 48 hours after treatment. By contrast, mice put in a low-oxygen enclosure saw an EPO increase that lasted less than two hours.

Similar physiological effects may take place in people. In healthy adults, two hours in a low-oxygen chamber raises EPO levels by 50%, and the effect disappears (as in mice) within a few hours. The Russian manual indicates, by contrast, that xenon’s benefits last for days—as might be expected if they were caused by the sort of Hif-1 alpha response seen in mice.

As Uiba’s non-denial might suggest, Russian athletes use of the gas-based performance enhancer is something of an open secret in the sporting world. In the lead-up to Sochi, the Economist reported on a document produced way back in 2010 by the Russian government that went as far as to set out the guidelines for administering the gas to athletes, advising it be used both before and after competitions. “The recommended dose is a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed,” the magazine explained. “The gas’s action, the manual states, continues for 48-72 hours, so repeating every few days is a good idea. And for last-minute jitters, a quick hit an hour before the starting gun can help.”

While most signs point to xenon use by Team Russia, it remains less clear if—or, more likely, just how many—other teams were also using the performance-enhancing gas. But seeing how this is the world of competitive sports we’re talking about, it’s probably a safe bet to assume we’ll be hearing similar double-negative explanations from other countries in the not-too-distant future.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.

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